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Sermon preached by The Very Revd Dr David Ison on the occasion of his installation as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral
25 May 2012
What is this event about? It's important for this cathedral and for its ongoing story: another chapter unfolds. But this is a very minor footnote in the unfolding of the kingdom of God: the important thing isn't what we do this evening, but what will we do as a result of it, together.
I've learnt over the years to start my first sermon in a place with two important statements. Most important is that when I come and see you, I don't drink coffee, and I take my tea very weak with no milk or sugar. Someone sent me a quote about a dean who, said his biographer, was a proper dean: whenever he had a meeting, there would always be a bottle of Bollinger on the table. Well, if you haven't got tea, then champagne is an absolutely fabulous substitute.
The other thing I need to ask you is that we might live in the truth with kindness. I will make mistakes, I will get things wrong – we all do – and your expectations of me will be too high.
Please tell me when I've got it wrong – we must help each other take responsibility for what we do and for when we fail, because that's how we learn and grow; but tell me with kindness. When something goes wrong, there's no point in blaming others: instead, we need to keep asking the question, what have we learnt for next time? How will it be different?
Blaming others is for small-minded people, and Christians are called to be generous and kind. The question is not, am I right and are you wrong? The question is: do I live with the love of Jesus Christ in my heart and in my life? Do I treat others with the love with which I trust that God will treat me? In words from tonight's reading of the Christian scriptures: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Or as St Paul says, Without love, all we do is worth nothing.
This is not soppy or sentimental anything-goes love. Christian love isn't pink and fluffy and self-indulgent; nor is it the romantic love which people chase after, the myth which has destroyed so many marriages and relationships, and damaged the lives of children, and undermined society. Christian love is what we see in Jesus Christ, in his life and death and resurrection: love which chooses to suffer for those who hate you, love which loves the unlovable, and so changes the world.
Twice in the last year I've had experience of being on the receiving end of people trying to co-opt me into their view of the world. Both are areas of heated controversy – Israel and homosexuality. Heated, because they're both about identity, and whether people have a right to exist, and they touch on deep-seated feelings and experiences of abuse and violence and unreconciled differences.
Both are examples of how as human beings as human beings we have such a tendency to put the world into two camps: them and us. We say or think that, if you don't agree with me, then you're wrong; if you're not on my side then you must be my enemy.
We divide the world into black and white, and shades of grey are squeezed out, reduced to soundbites and headlines. It's a digital view for a digital world. Digital technology reduces everything to noughts and ones, on or off, yes or no. Analogue music on vinyl or analogue TV have gone; so too the subtlety of analogy itself is being pushed out of public discourse and replaced by 'us' or 'them'.
We need to stop seeing the world in black and white, and see the colours of God in people instead.
For in Christ there is no them and us. There is only us. God is on everyone's side, and therefore God is on no one's side.
God's love for 'us' and for 'them' doesn't depend on our being good or deserving; it depends on God being loving. And God's love, unlike ours, is relentless.
As the 7th century writer Isaac of Nineveh put it: 'As is a grain of sand weighed against a large amount of gold, so, in God, is the demand for just judgement weighed against his compassion. As a handful of sand thrown into the boundless ocean, so are our human sins in comparison with God's providence and mercy. As a copious spring of water can't be stopped up by a handful of dust, so the Creator's compassion cannot be conquered by the wickedness of his creatures.'
That's why in Christ there is no them and us. There is only us, who should be trembling before the overwhelming love of God.
There's no more wonderful way to live in this world than to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: to follow in his way, in joy and hope and love, being continually challenged to change and grow, always called to be open for Jesus to overturn the tables of the prejudices which we erect in the places of his prayer.
The Bible tells us that God's love is inclusive. Everyone is loved wholeheartedly by God without exception – it's the original equalities policy: all of us are equal before God. It doesn't matter whether you're a priest or a bishop, an insider or an outsider; whether you're a conservative or an open evangelical, or in the ordinariate or identify yourself as inclusive; it doesn't matter whether you're a musician or a member of the Mothers' Union; a journalist or a hoodie; gay or straight, or neither; a failure in marriage or a successful single; in an Occupy tent or a banker's office; a victim of crime or a convicted criminal; a person with a strong religious faith, or an atheist or a struggling agnostic.
Whoever and whatever we are, wherever we start from, Jesus Christ will start with us; Jesus Christ loves us to the uttermost, died to set us free, and was raised from death to transform our lives.
God is on everyone's side, and no one's side: for God is both loving and just. The love of God for us is so great, say Jesus and the prophets, that God will not rest until we are remade into the image of Jesus Christ, until we become as loving as God is himself, as profligate and careless with our love as is the God who loves and longs for all.
For God's love is a consuming fire, burning up our hatreds and our darkness, the things we're ashamed of, the ways we've hurt others and ignored God and goodness and truth and never even noticed. God will not rest until we know that we are loved.
And Jesus calls us to be a Church of love and truth, inclusive and challenging.
It doesn't matter what adjective you put in front of yourself: liberal, conservative, charismatic, traditionalist, male or female, orthodox or unbelieving. God is onto your case - and mine. We can't stop God loving us, however hard we try. As the poet Francis Thompson writes of the God he calls the Hound of Heaven:
'Still with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, Came on the following feet...' God's love will hunt us down and there's nowhere to hide:
For God will keep challenging us whenever we think we've got it right, when we think that, unlike 'them', we have the truth, rather than trusting that the Truth has us.
and brothers, whatever your religious or irreligious tribe.
Come to Jesus Christ and find the inclusive and challenging love of God.
If our faith
doesn't make us uncomfortable and change us;
if we blame others rather than love them;
if we refuse to tolerate the intolerant;
if we don't love those who are different from us, really love them and be their friend;
if we still persist in dividing the world into 'them and us' –
then hear and believe the words of one of the friends of Jesus who knew him best, and be changed.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made perfect in us.
Ubi caritas – where love is, that's where God is.